There is Nothing to Forgive: An Interview with John Ridley

12 Years Poster12 Years a Slave is a beautiful, horrifying, and challenging film. It is the story of the capture and enslavement of Solomon Northup, a free black man from New York, after he is duped into taking his violin performances dangerously close to the border and slave states on a promising concert tour. He quickly finds himself in chains, and then in Louisiana, no longer his own master.  For the next twelve years, he is passed from plantation to plantation, finding ways to survive amongst unspeakable suffering. Forced to keep his past unspoken, his ability to read and write hidden, and his passions in check, Northup is nevertheless determined to make the best of his situation, biding his time while he keeps the hope alive that he will one day return to his family.

I spoke with the screenwriter John Ridley, who adapted Northup’s memoir on spec, hoping that his project with director Steve McQueen would be produced if he could make it good enough. When I first got on the phone with Ridley, I told him that while I did not enjoy the film, per se, he had certainly accomplished that goal. Northup’s journey is a tear inducing, harrowing experience to watch. Over a century of American film has not been able to produce such a powerful depiction of the peculiar institution. Our conversation touched on everything from the religious lives of slaves to Hollywood’s failure to provide us with sufficient images of the era. Read More »

Woody Guthrie the Commonist: An Interview with Bill Nowlin

American_Radical_Patriot_Cover_Art_Product_ShotWoody Guthrie: American, Radical, Patriot, gathers together the complete Library of Congress recordings in one place for the very first time, including the interviews done by Alan Lomax, the VD demos, and the BPA songs written to help celebrate the power of the Bonneville Power Administration as it powered up the Pacific Northwest. In the 1940s, Guthrie sang songs about Hitler for the war effort and donned a soldier’s uniform. He was a man of the people, singing for them and their causes. He was a “commonist”, celebrating the power of the individual, and, in these recordings, the government as well.  All of this makes for a complex character, and a wonderful new set of music, courtesy of Rounder Records.

I spoke with Bill Nowlin, co-founder of Rounder Records and producer of the new set. We talked about Guthrie’s position here as he worked for the government, his lasting influence, and what may still remain in the vaults for our future enjoyment. Read More »

City Lights at the Dawn of the Talkies: An Interview with Jeffrey Vance

CityLights_DFcoverCity Lights contains one of the most powerful sequences in all of American cinema, or any cinema for that matter. A woman, once blind, finally meets the man she believes was her wealthy benefactor. Their eyes meet through the glass of her flower shop, the full flowering symbol of her renewed life. She approaches him out of pity, believing him to be a homeless man being taunted by kids out on the street. Seeing that he is downtrodden and in need, she goes out to press a coin into his palm.  Touching his hand, she realizes that this Little Tramp, not some wealthy businessman, was her benefactor all along. Fresh from being released from prison for the very act that helped save her vision, the Tramp can only smile and cry. These final moments could only be pulled off by Charlie Chaplin. And now, in the latest of a series of releases by the Criterion Collection from the Chaplin archives, we can enjoy this “Comedy Romance in Pantomime” in its newly restored form.

Recently, I spoke with Jeffrey Vance, author of Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema, who provided the audio commentary on the new Criterion Collection release of the film. We spoke about the fragile state of silent films, Chaplin’s directing methods, his politics, and of course, the art of pantomime at a time when Hollywood was turning to sound and the talkies. Read More »

Houses Without Names Book Review

Houses without NamesHubka, Thomas C. Houses Without Names: Architectural Nomenclature and the Classification of America’s Common Houses. , 2013.

“But it doesn’t have to be that way!” That is the refrain in Thomas Hubka’s Houses Without Names (University of Tennessee Press, 2013), challenging the status quo of how and why we look at housing the way we do. The long awaited second volume in the Vernacular Architecture Studies series, edited by Thomas Carter and Anna Vemer Andrzejewski, this volume picks up where Carter and Elizabeth Collins Cromley left off in Invitation to Vernacular Architecture (University of Tennessee Press, 2005), challenging readers to apply the basic skills presented in IVA to a vast and poorly understood group of buildings – the common house. Written for both the student of architecture history and seasoned professionals, Houses Without Names is both a guide to conducting fieldwork on vernacular houses and a means by which the practices and assumptions of the field may be closely examined. Read More »

Another Self Portrait: In Conversation with Michael Simmons

By Rob Ribera

In August, Bob Dylan and Columbia Records released, Another Self Portrait, the tenth in a series of official bootleg recordings.  Collecting nearly forty tracks of unused takes, alternate versions, half-starts, and demos, the album provides a much clearer picture of one of the most divisive years in Dylan’s career.  After a motorcycle crash in 1966, the details of which are still relatively unknown, Dylan remained in Woodstock to recharge and continue creating music on his own terms.  The results were startling, which is saying a lot for an artist who at that time had successfully changed his musical persona so many times that it really shouldn’t have been a surprise.  John Wesley Harding, Nashville Skyline, the Basement Tapes—these albums from the late 1960s capture an artist finding a new voice, experimenting with his style, and in the case of the oft-bootlegged recording sessions in the basement of Big Pink that he did with the Band, plain just having fun and getting back to his roots. Read More »

The Ice Storm: An Interview with Rick Moody

In the 1990s, there seemed to be something in the air about the suburbs and small towns of America.  Many novelists, filmmakers, and photographers focused their attention on the darker side of the cookie-cutter landscapes, examining the homogeneity and boredom of it all.  This took shape in everything from Tim Burton’s outcast in Edward Scissorhands, Gregory Crewdson’s mysterious photographs of western Massachusetts, Tom Perotta’s darkly funny Election and Little Children, and many other visions of sprawl and ennui.  Of course, this was not new, but something gelled in those years.  Some may say that the crowing achievement came in 1999 with Sam Mendes’ American Beauty, which went on to gather up plenty of awards statues and critical accolades, but that film has not aged nearly as well as one that came a few years earlier.  The Ice Storm, Ang Lee’s quieter, tender masterpiece of American life, was released in the fall of 1997 and remains one of the best depictions of the suburbs ever committed to film.  And now we have a beautiful bluray release from the Criterion Collection to help us remember. Read More »

Once There Was a Hushpuppy, Once There Was a Gatsby: African American Representation in Contemporary American Film

Beasts of the Southern Wild remains a critical darling thanks in no small part to its “magical realist” aesthetic and its tough young star, Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis). But, cultural critic bell hooks sees “No Love in the Wild,” arguing that the “magical” focus of the film deflects attention away from the pornography of violence at its center.[1] Understanding the gulf between these reactions, and what they suggest about the current media landscape, means placing Beasts into the two artistic contexts it draws from—Southern artmaking, (encompassing artists as wide-ranging as Zora Neale Hurston, Eudora Welty, and Charles Burnett) and American mainstream filmmaking. This dual history illuminates the film’s power, problems, and reception. Read More »

An Anti-Empire State of Mind: Black Against Empire Book Review

Bloom, Joshua, and Waldo E. Martin. Black against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013.

The burgeoning field of Black Power studies has produced a wealth of innovative and sophisticated treatments of the activists, organizations, and ideas that emerged in the late-1960s offering new and radical visions of racial equality and social justice in the United States.  Much research about Black Power has sought to understand the influence of its driving personalities, to examine specific tactics or ideals of leading organizations, or to elucidate national shifts through studies of social and racial developments in specific locales.  The existing scholarship is rich and multi-faceted, but has only recently begun to unravel and make sense of some of the central paradoxes and contradictions that allowed the militancy and self-determination articulated by proponents of Black Power to capture the imagination of African Americans and other marginalized groups both domestically and internationally—and in doing so, to win the fear and respect of agents of white power all the way up to the FBI.  Read More »

A Quest for the Cultural Jesus

Prothero, Stephen R. American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2003.

In the context of the present de-centered conception of American Studies, one might logically ask how a scholar might still use a myth-and-symbol approach responsibly to analyze insightfully certain iconic and persistent American themes.  Stephen Prothero, professor of religion at Boston University, in tackling no less a subject than Americans’ conception of Jesus, goes a long way toward answering this question in his American Jesus, which sparkles with wit, insight, and humor. Read More »